BOOTLEG FILES 440: “The Atom Strikes!” (1945 documentary short produced by the U.S. Army Signal Corps).
LAST SEEN: The entire 30-minute film is online at many websites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been included in collections of public domain films relating to World War II and nuclear weapons.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: There was no copyright on the film.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is forever stuck in the public domain.
This week marks the anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Back in 1945, during the early part of the U.S. military occupation of Japan, independent journalists and newsreel cameramen (either American or Japanese) were forbidden to enter the bombed cities. Instead, the U.S. Army Signal Corps sent in their camera crews to document the aftermath of the attacks.
“The Atom Strikes!” was never intended to be shown to the American public. Instead, it was produced as part of the Army-Navy Screen Magazine series, which consisted of documentaries to be shown exclusively to U.S. military personnel. (The film has no screen credits and I cannot locate information on who directed it.) The film is very unusual because it places almost all of its focus on structural engineering – the human story is blithely ignored, with only fleeting suggestions that some people may have died in the blasts.
“The Atom Strikes!” opens with the New Mexico-based test of the first atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. Three different camera angles were set up to capture the destructive force of the bomb – and even though this is a black-and-white film, the fiery impact of the explosion is vibrantly apparent.
The film’s narrator then explains how and why Hiroshima was chosen for the first atomic bomb. The Army Signal Corps’ camera visits various locations in Hiroshima and lingers over the city’s buildings, bridges, statues and roads. (It is not clear just when the film was shot, though it may have been approximately six weeks after the bombing.)
The images captured in “The Atom Strikes!” are devastating, to put it mildly. The city was reduced to an endless landscape of rubble and wreckage, and the only structures that remained standing (albeit without windows and doors) were made from reinforced concrete. The narrator seems to fault the Japanese, in large part, for the extent of the structural damage by noting that municipal zoning allowed for flimsy wooden buildings next to solid concrete buildings – clearly, the damage would never have been so strong if Hiroshima was a city where every structure was designed to withstand an atom bomb.
As part of its obsession with the structural engineering aspects of post-bombing Hiroshima, “The Atom Strikes!” lingers on how so few of the city’s roads experienced any serious damage. The fact that the roads were occupied almost entirely by pedestrians while the sole vehicles were part of U.S. Army convoys is not acknowledged by the narrator.
A few U.S. soldiers from the occupation force serve as on-screen guides to the damage. One soldier points to a wall that was thrust into a severely tilted angle by the blast – though, of course the viewer could have ascertained the nature of the damage without the soldier’s assistance. Another soldier, standing on a bridge, points out a pedestrian’s shadow that was burned into the ground by the force of the bomb. However, the fate of the pedestrian is not cited.
Indeed, “The Atom Strikes!” spends so much time looking at schools, smokestacks, train bridges, roads and the Hiroshima train station that it never pauses to wonder about the people of Hiroshima. There is a quick view of a “Red Cross hospital” and the narrator assures the viewer that the facility continued operating in the aftermath of the attack, but the patients in the hospital are never shown on camera.
The only Hiroshima survivor featured in this film is Father John A. Siemes, a German-born Jesuit priest and a professor at Tokyo’s Catholic University. Father Siemes was living at the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Nagatsuka, two kilometers outside of Hiroshima, and he is interviewed by an unidentified man who is positioned off-camera. In his relatively brief screen time, Father Siemes calmly details some of what he witnessed during the initial explosion and in the days that followed. When asked if there was any hatred of the Americans because of the bombing, he answers that the Japanese had come to respect American strength as the war progressed and that they did not hate those that dropped the bomb.
Father Siemes also estimates that about 100,000 people died in the bombing. However, he is not given the opportunity to detail the suffering faced by those that survived the attack. The film offers a quick glimpse of Hiroshima residents hammering together a makeshift wooden house, but that is the only time the film remembers that people lived in the city.
In case you are wondering about Nagasaki, that city’s fate is not discussed until 22 minutes into this half-hour film. The film stresses that Nagasaki was chosen as a target because of its significance as a military manufacturing base – but, of course, the civilian casualties are ignored.
“The Atom Strikes!” was not the only film to be shot in Hiroshima and Nagasaki right after the war ended. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey sent a crew led by Lt. Daniel McGovern to cover the after-effects of the attacks. Lt. McGovern’s crew used color film to detail the human suffering as well as the structural damage. The resulting work, a documentary called “The Effects of the Atomic Bombs Against Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” was censored by the U.S. government and the footage was withheld from view for more than 20 years. (Information on the McGovern film is contradictory – some sources say it ran one hour, others say it ran three hours. Either way, it has never been commercially released in its entirety.)
In 1946, the Army Signal Corps re-edited “The Atom Strikes!” into a 12-minute film called “A Tale of Two Cities.” A new coda was filmed, warning of the potential of a future atomic war with an unspecified enemy.
The Army Signal Corps’ films were never copyright protected, and duped copies of “The Atom Strikes!” surfaced over the years as historians began to study the military’s filmmaking endeavors during World War II. Footage from this film has turned up in documentaries and in several anthologies of World War II and Cold War films, and the entire film is available on numerous video websites.
Of course, “The Atom Strikes!” is a product of a different era and a different mind frame. But, still, when viewing the callous obfuscations that “The Atom Strikes!” displays, it is easy to recall the prophetic words of World War II leader Gen. Omar N. Bradley: “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!
Posted on August 10, 2012 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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